logo: Inform & Connect. Headshot of Ron Brooks.

Recorded November 4, 2020

In this episode of Inform & Connect, the American Foundation for the Blind’s ongoing series created to foster togetherness and camaraderie within the blindness community, Melody speaks with then Vice-President of transit market development at American Logistics, Ron Brooks. Ron Brooks is now Founder and CEO of Accessible Avenue, LLC.

Ron has spent 27 years working in the public transit industry for both public authorities and private companies, all focused on improving transportation for seniors and people with disabilities.

“I treasure my love of transportation and my life experiences as a blind person,” Ron says. “I attribute my successful career in public transit to the lessons I learned growing up with sight loss.”

“Transportation is something we all struggle with in the blindness community,” said Melody Goodspeed, AFB Major Gifts Specialist, “I cannot wait for Ron to share his passion for transportation and advocacy.”


Melody Goodspeed: And thank you for guys for joining us today on Informant Connect. We have a very special guest today, talking about a topic that means a great deal to me and to all of us, which I'm very excited. And our guests also is a dear friend of the American Foundation for the Blind. I'm so happy to have our lovely Ron Brooks joining us today. And he is the vice president, sorry about, of transit market development at American Logistics. Ron, it is so good to have you today.

Ron Brooks: Well, thank you. I'm glad to be here.

Melody: I know, I'm so excited. And I'm just reading about your story and I love your passion for transportation, so let's just dive right in.

Ron: Sounds great.

Melody: So, Ron, I love when you talked about transportation, and how you feel a bit of a passionate about it, can you kind of talk about where your passion for transportation stems from?

Ron: Well, that's a great question and it's one that I could not have answered a year ago, but as we've all had a little time to sit and reflect, as we sit in our homes and look at the same four walls and the same people day after day, after day. I've been reflecting. And I remember being a kindergartner, growing up in Ohio at the time and I'm from Indiana, but we moved around a little and I grew up in a working class family, didn't have a lot going on, but I was born in 1967. I was in kindergarten in 1971. And I remember sitting on my bed before afternoon kindergarten. And my taxi driver came to pick me up because I was an integrated student, sitting and reading a book every single day called you will go to the moon. And it was this cool little book. It talked about the astronauts going up to Skylab and it showed pictures of the astronauts and the spaceship and the earth and walking around on Skylab and a dune buggy on the moon and all this kind of stuff.

I was a low vision kid, I could see a little and not a lot. And I knew that, that's what I was going to do. And I got a little older and then it was, well, maybe the moon's not going to happen, but I want to be a pilot. I'm going to fly planes. So when I was 13, almost 14. I took a basketball In the face because in Indiana we play basketball and I wasn't really supposed to be playing, but I did. And that kind of ended, it ended my eyesight, it also kind of put the dreams of being a pilot on hold. Although I did get to fly, assess them one time and that's a story for another day, but I've always had a love of transportation and it's just gotten closer and closer to the earth. And as a blind person who spends time getting places, and the only way I had was public transportation. So I graduated from college in 1990, went out to San Francisco to go to a San Francisco state and graduate school. And transportation was the thing that set me free.

And it was the thing that drove me nuts. And riding buses that were sometimes late and the drivers didn't call the stops and riding on trains that were difficult to find and difficult to tell which one. And there weren't always accessible or detectable warning strips on the edges of the platforms, which made it dangerous for me. So I had the opportunity to serve as an advisory committee member for a transit agency. And I already liked transportation. As you can tell, I love things that moved, but having the opportunity to serve on an advisory committee for a transit agency, I fell in love with what they were doing, and I felt that I could add value. And so I got involved in it then, that was 1993. The agency was the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District very much like a WMATA in Washington. And they hired a planner to help them develop accessibility in their key stations, which were the rail stations that had to come up to ADA level compliance.

This is way back when most things didn't comply. So they needed a planner to help work on those projects and help with the community engagement and giving advice to the engineers and the architects as they were working on all these projects. And because I was a person who had pretty good ideas and really believed in finding common ground and also was a consumer, the people at BART saw a future in me, they gave me the opportunity. I took that job as an entry-level planner, and I've been involved in the industry ever since. And I think that's my passion. My passion is to help people go where they want to go. Just like I want to go where I want to go. And that has sustained me through my career. It's 27 years and counting, and I love what I do. I love the opportunity to make transportation better for me, for the people I know, for the communities that I've gotten to live and work in. And that's really what I'm all about.

Melody: I love that on so many levels. I love how you told your story, but not only that, you really talked about passion, which is something, I think in the blind community we struggle with finding our passion for our job. But also your upper mobility, you really avid, showed your value and moved up and that is really incredible. I love, thank you for sharing that. I think it covered so many aspects of our lives. So can you tell us what were you doing today? What is that transportation and dream of passion look like now?

Ron: So I'll go back just a few years and talk a little bit about, kind of how transportation has evolved. How it's evolved in the industry, because I've worked on paratransit, primarily paratransit, also accessible transit a little bit, but more paratransit. And about 15 years ago, paratransit was, and some systems still have it. It's the thing you call way ahead. You request a trip, the vehicle comes at some point during a 30 or 45 minute window, hopefully. It shows up, you get on, you ride it. Maybe you're by yourself, maybe you're with other people and you get to where you're going to go. But you have no idea how long it's going to take, because it depends on how many people are riding that day. And you can't plan your life around it. You can't predict what's going to happen from day to day. That was paratransit.

So about 15 years ago, the industry started recognizing that technology was changing. We had GPS, which meant we could find our vehicles and know where they were at any given time, which made it a lot easier to tell customers when that vehicle might arrive. Then we got smartphones that allow people to do a lot more things on their own in terms of making trip reservations and canceling trips and doing things that before would have been difficult. And then along came services like Uber and Lyft and some of those kinds of things. And then it became possible using a smartphone and GPS technology to get transportation almost on demand. And about six years ago I joined, about seven years ago, I joined an agency in Phoenix called Valley Metro. It's the local transit agency in this part of the country, serves the metropolitan area where I live here in Phoenix.

And we were working under my leadership to innovate our paratransit system. We have, the kind of system I described earlier, but we were really trying to innovate it. And we brought some on-demand services into our system so that customers could call or go online, request a trip and have the trip almost immediately. And using services like Uber. And what we saw is that trips were cheaper because we were using Uber, which is a relatively inexpensive service. And we also saw that customers really liked the service. And I had the opportunity to join a company that provides exactly that product and the company I worked for announced, company called American Logistics. I'm a vice president of transit market development, which basically means I'm responsible for bringing on demand transportation to the transit industry.

This is a service that is available in a lot of places, but public transit is still adopting this technology. It's still not the norm in most cities. My job at the company is to help people see the value of this kind of transportation and to help cities and transit agencies around the country implement these kinds of services so that customers don't have to necessarily call in advance, book their trip several days in advance, wait for a vehicle to show up during a pickup window and take a trip of an unknown length. We think that there's a better way to do paratransit. We think that there's a cost effective way to do it. And my job is to convince and persuade agencies to purchase those services.

Melody: Well, I know I speak on behalf of a lot of [inaudible] myself, to be included in that. How much we appreciate that, and I really, for our listeners out there that aren't really familiar with paratransit, that don't have a need for it. It has its challenges, as you say, you can sometimes be in a trip for three and a half hours, you just don't know. And that uncertainty can really, so I really thank you so much for bringing that to defining what paratransit is and for being in the role you are of being an advocate and for change.

Ron: Yep. Another use for it, by the way, for the folks who maybe use public transit like normal standard buses, trains, light rail. Another use for these kinds of services is that mile that gets, and it could be a mile or two miles or half a mile or five miles. But that part of the trip that gets you from your house in the suburbs or your job downtown, or wherever to the transit network, let's say you live out in a suburban part. And I know that you all are based in the DC area. So say you're based out in suburban Virginia, and you live at the bottom of a really tall hill. And at the top of that really tall hill is where the transit, the Metro runs.

These kinds of services can connect people who live in neighborhoods, maybe where there are no sidewalks, where the traffic is difficult, where there's not a lot of pedestrian amenities. You can use services like on-demand service to get to public transit, and then use public transit to go the huge distance maybe to a downtown office. So these services are not just for people who have disabilities, who cannot use public transportation, they can be used in connection with public transit to make the world bigger for those of us who really have to depend on transportation that is available since we're not drivers.

Melody: I really liked that point because that really shows that element of inclusion, right? And that is so very important to everyone, at the end of the day, we're all people and we all want to be treated the same. So thanks for pointing that out. So Ron, what do you think about where the future of transportation is going with people, with everyone and all disabilities?

Ron: So transportation is evolving rapidly right now, and it was evolving rapidly before we'll say March 11th, 2020, and that's evolving more rapidly now. And what we've seen in transportation is a convergence of a lot of different technologies. So I mentioned them a little bit earlier, a GPS technology, the smartphone, the evolution of the smartphone and really the invention and refinement of what we call ride sourcing or ride share type services like Uber and Lyft. And these services are making the transportation industry. They're having a couple of different impacts on the regular public transit side. It is much easier now for people to use their smartphones, to do everything from plan a trip to locate where their bus or light rail train is, to paying for trips, to linking trips. So for example, there are agencies where you can use a single app to plan your trip on public transit, and then book an Uber or a Lyft ride at the end of your trip to get to your final destination.

There are services coming into the public transit space called micro transit, which is basically on demand transportation in a shared ride mode. So for example, you might have an area where there's a parking lot, served by the transit agency, lots of people get off at five o'clock from a downtown office building, take a train or a bus out to the suburbs, to this parking lot. And instead of having to drive their own cars, they can actually then use a service called micro transit, which might look like a shuttle or a van that can basically take everybody where they want to go. And these kinds of services are making it possible for people who do not drive to live in places where they might not have been able to live before. So, those trends are going to continue.

And I think one of the things that we'll see because of the pandemic and the emphasis now on remote working, I think we will see more people using more flexible services because their needs have changed. They're not just going to a nine to five job, five days a week. On the paratransit side, I think the changes that are coming and they're coming slowly, but I think the changes that you will see is service that is more on demand. We don't really need to have large vans running around in circles with lots of people on them anymore. We have technology that can allow us to provide service. It's a little bit more customized, a little bit more on demand. You will see some of the same smartphone technology, some of the same service models that are coming into public transportation as a whole, I think coming into paratransit.

And I think you'll see systems do a better job of integrating with each other. I think that the time will come when you will be able to book a paratransit trip and link it to a rail trip to get across the metropolitan area much more quickly than you would just taking paratransit, for example. The last thing I'll say is autonomous vehicles, autonomous vehicles are already in operation in a number of places around the country. They are being widely tested including here in the valley, where in the Phoenix area where I live and these vehicles are coming, they will make a huge impact on public transportation. And I believe they will increase the speed with which some of these trends are able to take place because an on-demand vehicle, once they are refined, once they are really tested and optimized, and we've worked out all the questions around safety and accessibility and insurance and all those kinds of issues, they will be less expensive to operate. And I think that bodes well for how much service is made available.

Melody: No, I love that. I have to ask, have you ridden in an autonomous vehicle? I have to ask.

Ron: I have-

Melody: Oh, fun.

Ron: And it was a phenomenal experience and one of the stories I like to tell is, I was sitting in this self-driving car. And it was a demonstration for a project that I was working with at my last job at Valley Metro in Phoenix. And I'm sitting in this car and I'm thinking about the time that my wife and I, my wife's also visually impaired. I'm thinking about the time that we can go on a date night by ourselves with no snoopy drivers, be paying attention to what we're doing. So I think that'll be just really awesome. And I've written about that, I've written a blog called self-driving cars and date night. I think that they offer the opportunity for people who have disabilities, including people who are blind or visually impaired to go somewhere on our own by ourselves, whenever we want just like most other people are able to do.

Melody: I love that you shared that story. Where could we find that blog post, Ron?

Ron: There's a couple of places and I can shoot you some links. I've got it. And then there's also a magazine in the transit industry called Metro Magazine that ran a version of it a few months ago. So I can share that with you.

Melody: Awesome. That is so awesome. I really am excited that you are in this role because your passion for transportation, it makes me feel happy to know that there's some, we have you in our corner there and not where else. I can't believe this but we are already at time for question and answer, and I know that people in the audience probably have a ton of questions because this is such a good, juicy topic for us. And we've not covered this before on this show. And that's kind of crazy to me. So let's go ahead and go for that, Suzan.

Suzan Henderson: Our first question comes from our friend Roy Samuelson, and he asked, can you share any alliances American Logistics has made with other companies and how that came together or is coming together?

Ron: So, I'd be happy to do it. So American Logistics. And we just tell a little bit about what we specifically do. American Logistics, we are an integrator. And what that means is we have a technology platform and a call center. And we work with providers across the country who operate vehicles. And that includes Uber, who is one of our business partners, as well as local taxi cab companies and wheelchair accessible vehicle providers. And we work with either healthcare organizations or transit agencies to provide transportation and our approach to do that is our technology and call center allow customers to reach out to us for trips. And we then match those trips with the best provider for that trip. In some cases, that's the provider that the customer asks for. In other cases, it's the provider who has the ability to best meet the physical needs of a customer.

So a couple of places where we're currently working on the transit side, are San Joaquin County, California, which is the Stockton area. We operate a program called Ride Choice in the Phoenix area, which I described a little bit, and we operate a lot of services within the healthcare industry for healthcare providers who offer transportation to, and from medical appointments as a benefit for their subscribers. We are a new player in the transportation industry. So because this is still a relatively new service model for public transit. So, and my job by the way, is that when Roy asked me that question next year, we'll have a lot longer list of people to talk about.

Melody: Love it.

Suzan: Fantastic. We do have several other questions. So the next one is, do you think people are thinking about how to better serve the aging and disability communities since COVID-19?

Ron: Yes, they are. I think it's mixed. I think there's a couple of things that play. One, there's definitely an understanding that people and particularly people who are older, have a higher risk of complications from COVID-19. And so we like our model for serving seniors for a couple of reasons. One, we can provide a level of service that is able to meet their needs without putting them on a vehicle with lots and lots of other people, which I want to say flat out that right now, the research suggests that public transportation is not a vector for the Corona Virus as has been stated by some critics. There's no research to support it.

So transportation is safe, but a lot of people feel more comfortable in smaller vehicles. And we are able to offer that peace of mind. And particularly for seniors, I think that's super important, but I think that society is more aware now than they were. I think the challenge that we're facing right now is there are revenue challenges facing the transportation industry. It is largely funded with public money. So even though the need for transportation is increasing, the funding for transportation has not increased. So I think there's a desire to serve more people. I think that on demand transportation is a great way to serve them, but we've got to find the funds to do that.

Melody: Thanks for that.

Suzan: Oh, sorry Melody.

Melody: I was saying thank you [crosstalk].

Suzan: Question for you. Which states or countries are showing success when it comes to transportation for the aging and disability community? And why do you think they're showing so much promise?

Ron: So I'm not an expert on the kind of the whole world of transportation, I know some. The country that has the best, what I'm going to call laws in support of transportation for seniors, folks with disabilities is probably the US. The ADA as a law is the model that other countries have adopted for their own access laws around transportation. And I would point to ADA, like laws that have sprung up in most of the Canadian provinces and across Europe. So other countries though, have very, very good transportation. Our transportation in terms of paratransit is the best in the world.

Our transportation in terms of general public transportation, which most seniors, I'm assuming that they're healthy, are able to use probably, Europe and parts of Asia are ahead of us in that space. And maybe some of the larger cities in South America, but public transit, it's a little bit more complicated. There's a lot of people doing a lot of innovative things in the public transportation space. When you get to paratransit, the US is really leading the way. And I would say that next to the US is probably Canada, but it's specific to certain cities in Canada, the Toronto area, the Vancouver area, both have phenomenal services. So, it's a hodgepodge.

Melody: That's a good question.

Suzan: We have one more Melody. Is that okay?

Melody: Yes.

Suzan: Okay. How can we advocate for better transportation when it comes to paratransit?

Melody: I like that [crosstalk].

Ron: That's a great question. So I think, one of the things that people, the mistake that people tend to make when they advocate, and I see this a lot, is they advocate for more of what they currently have. And what I would say is what people need to advocate for is the type of transportation that meets their needs. And I'll give you an example, the new transportation bill, which has not been adopted by Congress. And it should get adopted next year, as long as the pandemic kind of gets out of the way a little bit. There is a provision in that bill that allows for a small pilot program to test paratransit, that allows customers to make a stop along the way. And this was something that AFB actually helped to advocate for. It's something that the law currently does not require.

So if you're a parent and you need to drop your kids off at daycare on the way to work, you can't really do that on paratransit right now, but in this new transportation bill that should get authorized next year, there is money and a requirement to do a pilot project to see if there's a way to develop those types of services. I believe that there are ways to develop those types of services, but we need to develop them. So I think the way you advocate and that by the way, came directly from advocacy, from people in the disability community, and particularly in the blind community, it would not have happened any other way. I can assure you that nobody of a transit agency, thought of this particular need. And because that was pushed by customers who had that need, it's now in a transit bill as a pilot project, which is really the first step.

Once we are able demonstrate how to do it, it's much easier to start to convince transit agencies who have to pay for it, that there's a need for the service in a use case, in a way to deliver it effectively. So talk about your needs, talk about how you use the service, talk about how it would help your life, talk about, any examples you know of places that have that kind of service. Because people are always more comfortable trying something, if they know somebody else has already done it and it works. And I'm always happy to assist, both consumer organizations have committees that work on transportation issues, seek those groups out, talk to those folks and let them help you as well. So use the resources in the community, use your own experience. And really it's just talking to your local transit agency about what you need.

Melody: I love how you said that, to really start advocating for things you need and not for the same thing. And that is awesome. I think that we all tend to fall into that trap. And it's really true, is to start advocating because people don't know what they don't know, right? Because it's just, it's yeah. They think, okay, that's what they need to do. But thanks for that Ron, so much. I only have one more question because we're at time, but would that also help with the budgeting issues, you think?

Ron: So, it's my belief that there are ways to make the existing services that most agencies provide more cost-effective. It varies by system, but I believe that the services that companies like mine are working to provide by using existing providers like Uber, like local taxi companies, people that are already in the community with vehicles invested in the local economy. I think we can provide services that are more cost-effective than some of the services that are being provided today, it's case by case. So, I'm not going to say that that's always true in all cases, but I think in the aggregate, there are ways to make paratransit more cost-effective and more financially sustainable. And especially if we can design it to be so flexible that people can choose to use it to connect to a high capacity kind of public transit that's already out there and paid for.

Melody: That is awesome. Well, Ron, thank you so much. If people wanted to get in touch with you or learn about what it is you're doing, how could they do that?

Ron: So I'm pretty involved on social media and I'm not going to try to give a bunch of links, but if you want to send, I think I've shared with you some social media links. People should feel free to reach out to me. I'm a pretty involved on social media and I'm happy to connect to anybody at any time. And I've also, you can share my professional email address, which I think you have, and I'm happy to take emails as well. So, feel free to reach out. And if I can't help you, I'll try to get you to somebody that can.

Melody: And he really will everybody. Ron has lived everywhere and he knows lots of people.

Ron: That is true, we've moved around a lot.

Melody: So, I really, really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much for being here. Everybody just stay well, stay happy. And we are better together as Ron says, getting connected and we can definitely create a life of no limits and change if we stick together.